No-Lose Conflict Resolution

young woman apologizing to manIs it possible to reach a satisfying conflict resolution when there seems to be no middle ground? We’ve all been taught about compromise since we were children. You wanted to play tag and your friend wanted to go swimming. Your mom suggested playing tag in the swimming pool, and suddenly all your problems were solved. Unfortunately, in the adult world compromise isn’t that simple. For example, a young couple came to me stuck in gridlock about their conflict. Let’s call them Ralph and Sara. Ralph wanted to pursue an exciting job opportunity in another state. Sara wanted to stay where they were, close to family and friends. They felt like this was a win-lose situation, but neither one wanted to lose.  The question is, can you resolve conflict without feeling like someone lost?

Renowned marriage researcher John Gottman would describe this scenario as dreams within conflict. The husband dreams of a successful career, and the wife dreams of being close to her family. There will be times in every marriage when something really important to each partner, their dreams, come into conflict. When this happens it is essential to work out these issues using the good communication skills I discussed in a previous post. Now more than ever is a time when both partners need to feel understood, connected, and validated.

You’re probably thinking, we can communicate all we want about this issue, but we can’t just create another option out of thin air that we are both happy with. While that may be true, you can reach a solution that incorporates both dreams. Here’s how:

  1. Recognize, Own, and Communicate Your Dreams

    •  Conflict lies in the day-to-day details of an argument. For example, Ralph dreams of a successful career, but Sara gets stuck on the image of Ralph coming home late and not prioritizing their family. Sara dreams of being close to her family, but Ralph doesn’t enjoy Sunday family dinners and would prefer more distance. The problem is, conflicts don’t get resolved in the nitty gritty details. The first step in conflict resolution is to step out of the nitty gritty box and look at the larger principles, your dreams.
    • When you start out by communicating your dreams, almost everyone agrees with you. Hardly anyone would say “no, I don’t want you to be successful” or “no, I don’t want you to have a good relationship with your family.” This approach to conflict resolution allows you to start where your strengths are: the principles you agree on. So for Ralph instead of  trying to persuade Sara by focusing on details such as making more money and having a bigger house, Ralph needs to communicate his dream to feel successful. For Sara, instead of trying to persuade Ralph by focusing on the benefits of free babysitting and rides to the airport, Sara needs to communicate her dream of having a good relationship with her family. In this step leave it at that. Communicate your dreams without trying to persuade.
    • Some examples of dreams include: close relationships with family, career prestige, desire for peace, desire for respect, opportunities for adventure, feeling financially secure, finishing something important, unity with past, relaxation, reaching personal potential, and prioritizing time, resources, or relationships.
  2. Understand and Validate Your Partner’s Dreams

    • It’s hard to make compromises until each person feels like their dreams are understood and validated. Again, this is not the time for persuasion. Right now your only goal is to better understand your partner’s dream. Some example questions to help you better understand where your partner is coming from include: What is your ideal dream? Is there a story from your past that would help me understand where you’re coming from? Is there anything you fear might happen if you don’t fulfill your dream? Tell me why this is so important to you.
    • After you’ve asked several questions to fully understand where your partner is coming from, follow up with validation. For example “I can see why this is so important to you, I never looked at it like that.” Of course, after you’ve validated your partner, it’s time to switch roles and receive your validation.
  3. Respectfully Communicate your Concerns

    • So far both you and your partner have communicated your dreams, found some overlap with what you want, and validated the areas in which you might disagree. Now is your chance to express your concern for how your partner’s dream might play out in your daily life. The operative word here is respect. Don’t undo the connection you just created. Again, consider reviewing how to maintain connection during communication. When you communicate your position it is essential that you include your emotions. 
    • For example, Sara might begin this discussion by saying: “It is important to me that you feel satisfied in your work. I understand that you need to feel good about yourself, your skills, and your potential. I have two concerns. First, that your work will demand too much of you and our family won’t see enough of you. I don’t want to feel lonely. Second, I get a lot of joy from being close to my family, and I’m sad to think of losing that source of support.”
    • Ralph may begin this discussion by saying: “Your happiness and joy is important to me, and I can see that your family brings you a lot of support while I’m at work. I’m concerned however because there aren’t a lot of job opportunities in my field where your family lives. I would feel incomplete and frustrated if I wasn’t able to test my professional abilities.
  4. Brainstorm Ways to Incorporate Each Partner’s Dreams

    • Remember when you said you can’t just create another option out of thin air? Well you couldn’t when your head was stuck in the nitty gritty box. Now you are looking outside of the box into your dreams and have connected with the importance of the issue to your partner. With this change in perspective you are ready to brainstorm possible solutions. Be open-minded to solutions that might not be your ideal dream, but could nonetheless be fulfilling.
    • Some potential brainstorms for Sara and Ralph include: applying for jobs a few hours outside of where Sara’s family lives, setting aside a substantial budget for visiting family, and Ralph seeking personal fulfillment in other areas (family, hobbies, education).

The goal in this method of conflict resolution is to help you shift your perspective from win-lose problem solving to dream-based fulfillment. It is helpful to have a reminder that you and your partner are on the same team. You joined the same team because you had common dreams and you were attracted to the dreams your partner had. Before your partner’s dreams seemed to stand in the way of your dreams you probably talked about how supportive you were of them. Go back to that place where you can remember the attraction you had to your partner’s passion. The more you allow yourself to think of the dreams you have in common, the less significant your dreams-within-conflict appear to be.

If you are in Tucson, Arizona and are seeking marriage counseling or individual therapy, call (240) 558-7198 to schedule an appointment!

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